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Will we ever learn to use history as a guide?

1920. 2020. A hundred years apart but closer than one might think. In 1920 the world was just recovering from the devastating influenza pandemic that shuttered schools, killed nearly 50 million people and laid waste to the economy.

Just like now, an untried cure — aspirin 100 years ago, today hydroxychloroquine — did more harm than good, causing a number of unnecessary deaths. And chillingly, the previous summer, 1919, had seen a wave of racial violence across the U.S. and would become known as the Red Summer. Lynchings and anti-black violence forced African Americans to the streets to protest, and it was their actions that were branded dangerous and lawless, rather than the hate they were desperate to counter. 

Does this sound familiar? Are the protesters of today the danger, or are they angry responders to violence born of prejudice and discrimination? In 1919 black activists were branded communists — the newest insult then available in the political lexicon — while today they are labeled terrorists and thugs. Either way, the blame is being shifted from where it belongs: a broken system that pays little more than lip service to impartiality and persistently ignores a host of inequalities. 

There’s an old saying that germs know no color line, but it’s only partially true. Sure, anyone can get infected, whether by influenza that hit a hundred years ago or the virus that’s decimating us today. But COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting minority communities, and not just in the United States. In the U.S., the mortality rate among African Americans is more than double the rate for Asians and Latinos and 2.4 times that of the white population.

None of this should come as a surprise since health and mortality rates in the black community have historically been poor, thanks to neglect, discrimination and an impossible health care system.

One hundred years ago, American public health campaigns did address health disparities, but they were prompted by fears that disease in non-white communities would “leak” into the white world. The Atlanta Constitution came straight out with it in 1918, claiming that improving minority health is a matter of sheer self-preservation to the white man.

Likewise in the U.K., the 1919 Aliens Restriction Act was prompted in large measure by fears that migrants would bring germs and diseases into the country. It required immigrants to be medically inspected before being landed in the country. Race riots rocked British cities in 1919 too. The police were slow to intervene when whites attacked minorities, but when the latter tried to defend themselves, they were swiftly arrested. Many were deported to the colonies or repatriated in a futile and racist effort to quell the antagonism. 

This is not new. When the Black Death came to Europe in the late 1340s, Jews became targets. Throughout the continent, they were burned to death. In the early 1900s Italians were blamed for a polio outbreak in New York while Jews, again, were blamed for spreading typhus in Germany and in Turkey. Danger, fear and insecurity. Whether it’s the threat of disease or of violence, it is minorities who, in times of stress especially, become the targets of hatred, of repressive policy and of blame. It’s happening again, and the language is remarkably similar whether we look at 1920 or 2020. Or 1340. 

1920. 2020. A hundred years apart but eerily similar. If the two eras start to seem as if they’re moving in the same direction, maybe it’s because the parallels are relevant. Will we ever learn to use history as a guide to the events and phenomena of the present before they overwhelm us?

Philippa Levine is the Walter Prescott Webb Chair in History and Ideas at The University of Texas at Austin. 

Tags Coronavirus Influenza pandemic World Health Organization

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